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Politics

Outspoken FEC Commissioner's Consequential Tenure Coming To An End

As the influence of money in politics has expanded, Donald McGahn became the unabashed advocate of opponents to campaign finance reform.

Stephen Colbert enters to file with the Federal Election Commission to be a SuperPAC Friday, May 13, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 22, 2013

President Obama said Friday he will formally nominate two candidates to fill seats on the Federal Election Commission, the administration's first foray into a once-sleepy bureaucratic backwater that has exploded into partisan warfare as the influence of money in politics has expanded rapidly in recent years.

Obama said Friday he would nominate Lee Goodman, a partner at the law firm LeClairRyan who worked for George W. Bush's campaign during the 2000 Florida recount, and Ann Ravel, the chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, to fill seats on the FEC currently held by two members whose terms have expired.

The new appointments also mean one of the more controversial figures in FEC history, Donald McGahn, will be leaving the commission once the Senate confirms Goodman, his replacement.

 

As the influence of money in politics has expanded, and the avenues that money takes to reach the political process multiply, McGahn, a longtime election lawyer and former general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, became the unabashed and outspoken advocate of opponents to campaign finance reform. To allies, McGahn used his position on the FEC to defend the rights of free speech. To adversaries, he represented the embodiment of undue influence, the defender not of free speech but of corporations and special interests intent on swaying elections.

McGahn frequently battled with his fellow commissioners Ellen Weintraub and Cynthia Bauerly, both Democratic appointees who favored stricter interpretations of campaign finance law. But he cut a decidedly atypical profile while he did it; his side projects include a hard-rocking cover band, Scott's New Band, that plays at bars in Ocean City, Maryland, and other hangouts. In a 2008 profile in the Wall Street Journal, McGahn said he owns 30 guitars. His shaggy head of hair can contrast with the suits he wears, which wouldn't be out of place on an investment banker.

Appointments to the FEC, a bipartisan commission made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, are traditionally made in consultation with leaders of both parties in the United States Senate. A veteran of dozens of Republican campaigns, McGahn was unanimously confirmed by the Senate when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2008. He served as chairman and vice chairman of the commission, which alternates between chairmen of both parties.

During his time on the commission, McGahn led a Republican bloc that stopped dozens of new rules that would have limited the amount of money, and the sources of that money, in federal campaigns. He tried, he said, to bring a strict legal perspective to a commission that had until then operated on an ad hoc basis.

"I think I've reframed the debate at the FEC. When I was first appointed, folks at the FEC rarely cited case law or even the statute -- they did a sort of common law, case by case approach on most things, without much thought or understanding of the real-world impact, and without a sense that they were being heard by the Commission," McGahn said in an email. "With me, people knew that I'd read the statute, take the case law seriously, and that I understood the practical impact, having made my living doing campaigns."

Advocates of campaign finance reform viewed McGahn as their primary adversary in an era in which super PACs and other outside political groups began rapidly expanding their influence and reach.

McGahn "consistently worked to undermine the law and has repeatedly opposed efforts to enforce the campaign finance laws," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the pro-reform group Democracy 21 in a statement. He was frequently a target of scorn and ire from Wertheimer and reform advocates at the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. McGahn held those groups in equally low regard, though he was the one with the vote at the FEC.

"He worked to preserve the rights of speakers with whom he disagreed as much as those with whom he agreed, and to enforce the law fairly," said Bradley Smith, a former FEC chairman and head of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that has opposed efforts to strengthen campaign finance laws.

McGahn's admirers didn't fall strictly along partisan lines. On the commission, McGahn frequently sided with Democratic lawyers who sought clarification of campaign finance laws, or permission to push the boundaries of those laws into theretofore uncharted territory. McGahn and Marc Elias, a lawyer at Perkins Coie who counts most of the Senate Democratic caucus as his clients, had a particularly close working relationship.

"Don McGahn's departure would be a major change for the FEC. He has been a hugely consequential Commissioner," tweeted Brian Svoboda, Elias's partner at Perkins Coie who represents much of the House Democratic leadership.

Because appointments to the FEC are made in consultation with Senate leaders, it's unlikely that Goodman will bring a dramatically different approach to the commission. Goodman's nomination would have to have been signed off on by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an ardent opponent of stricter campaign finance rules.

The new nominees are only the first wave of fresh blood at the FEC. All six commission terms have expired, meaning the five members still serving on the FEC are all serving beyond their allotted tenures. Partisan warfare on Capitol Hill has slowed the pace of new appointments.

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